Entertainment

Director got death threats over film poster featuring Hindu goddess. Now she's getting a protest screening

After Leena Manimekalai received death threats and backlash for her tweet promoting her film Kaali, the Toronto Metropolitan University faculty association’s equity committee has organized what it calls a “protest and solidarity screening” of the documentary short as a demonstration against censorship.

Film pulled from Toronto university series after Leena Manimekalai tweeted poster of goddess Kali smoking

Leena Manimekalai tweeted a poster promoting her film Kaali this summer that featured a controversial depiction of the Hindu goddess Kali. She says she received death threats from those who found it offensive. (Raghunathan)

This story contains an image of the film poster. 

Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai is still being harassed online, though it's been months since the director tweeted a poster for her documentary short that depicted the Hindu goddess Kali holding a Pride flag and smoking a cigarette.

At the time, the Indian director who is currently living in Toronto and identifies as queer, said she never expected the backlash or the death threats from people who found her depiction of the goddess offensive. Nor did she expect Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) to pull the film.

In early July, the university hosted a screening of Kaali — which uses an alternate spelling of the goddess's name — as part of its "Under the Tent" series on multiculturalism at the Aga Khan Museum. The film is a commentary on multiculturalism and features Manimekalai herself portraying Kali and exploring the city of Toronto at night. 

Now, the TMU faculty association's equity committee has organized what it calls a "protest and solidarity screening" of both Kaali and another of Manimekalai's films to support her work and to protest censorship.

"I definitely feel less alone," said Manimekalai, who is attending graduate school at Toronto's York University.

"I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm actually very happy after a long time because so many people are trusting your work and trying to root for you and support you." 

New screening to protest 'artistic censorship'

The screening, which is sold out, will take place on campus Thursday, as a "protest against her artistic censorship and institutional disavowal and a show of solidarity towards a queer feminist artist," said TMU equity committee member Fahad Ahmad. 

"I hope people will be able to engage directly with Leena's work and make an impression of it through that engagement as opposed to hearsay or … reactionary social media posts," he said. 

The event is co-sponsored by several community organizations including PEN Canada, Hindus for Human Rights, the Poetic Justice Foundation and TMU's Centre for Free Expression. 

"What happened to her was wholly inappropriate," said James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression, calling the opposition to Manimekalai's poster "frightening."

It's really important in the academic world to stand up to that attack on academic freedom and artistic freedom.- James Turk, director of Centre for Free Expression

"It's really important in the academic world to stand up to that attack on academic freedom and artistic freedom."

In a statement, Toronto Metropolitan University told CBC News that universities are "increasingly challenged" by the complex nature of these issues.

"While an apology was issued for the discomfort this film caused, the university remains committed to our core values of freedom of expression within an atmosphere free of intimidation."

Tweet sparked backlash, debate 

In July, the Aga Khan Museum which hosted the screening, also promptly issued an apology and distanced itself from the film and Manimekalai amidst the criticism the director received after she tweeted the poster. 

The film was pulled from the program and Manimekalai's name was taken off the website. 

The reaction to the poster prompted the Indian High Commission in Ottawa to urge Canadian authorities to "take action" against what it called a "disrespectful depiction of Hindu gods" after it said it received complaints from leaders of the Hindu community in Canada. 

The director's tweet sparked heated debate among politicians and religious leaders in India, including those who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Hindu ideology of Hindutva. 

One researcher that has chronicled far right movements within diaspora groups said Hindutva is a superficial politicization of Hinduism and has led to discrimination and sectarian violence against minority groups in India such as Muslims and Christians.

WATCH | Academics speak out about harassment for criticizing Hindu nationalism: 

Canadian academics speak out about harassment for criticizing Hindu nationalism

1 year ago
Duration 3:47
Several Canadian academics say they’re being harassed and threatened by local diaspora groups and foreign trolls for criticizing the government of Narenda Modi in India and its support of Hindutva — a right-wing political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy.

Steven Zhou, a former researcher with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network told CBC in April that Hindutva is a modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India, a secular democracy, into an ethno-religious country. 

Canadian politicians also weighed in. Chandra Arya, a Liberal MP representing the Ottawa-area riding of Nepean, criticized the poster on Twitter. His criticism led to more than a hundred academics, activists and members of community organizations signing a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemning his tweet. 

Dolores Chew, a professor specializing in South Asian history at Marianopolis College in Montreal, says she is seeing institutions more frequently cave to political pressure in order to be "seen as doing the right thing." 

"We have opportunistic individuals who harness [the cultural sensitivity of institutions] for a political agenda," said Chew. 

"That currently is resulting in people being killed," she said, referring to the violence in India. 

Director appreciates support 

According to reports in India, there are several police cases against Manimekalai in various states there for what they say is her disrespectful depiction of Kali, and a lawyer in New Delhi filed a court case asking that the filmmaker and her company be stopped from promoting the poster or clips from the film.

The New Delhi court issued a summons to Manimekalai and her company. The director says she is responding to the cases and the summons via her lawyer.

For Manimekalai, the support she's received in the form of Thursday's screening has been essential to her well being. 

"It made me feel that I am doing something right," she said. "I feel art is [more] powerful than hate.

"It also showed me the power of allyship and camaraderie."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Xing is a senior reporter with CBC News in Toronto. Email her at Lisa.Xing@cbc.ca.

With files from Katie Swyers and Judy Trinh

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